Retinal hemorrhage

Gaudete Sunday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Staunton, Va., 16 December 2012.

Today, my friends, is Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday in Advent on which we are called to rejoice in the Lord.

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The Prophet Zephaniah tells us to rejoice and exult with all our hearts, for the Lord has taken away the judgments against us.

The Prophet Isaiah tells us to ring out our joy, for surely it is God who saves us … to sing the praises of the Lord for he has done great things, and this is known in all the world.

The Apostle Paul tells us to rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice, for the Lord is near, and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

And yet …

We come to church this morning, on Gaudete Sunday, with heavy hearts, scared, grieving, and crying out, “How long, O Lord, how long … before all the killing stops?”

We come to church this morning, on Rejoicing Sunday, not knowing how to rejoice, because we are still weeping.

I tell you, the only way we can rejoice this day is if we listen to John the Baptist, who tells us exactly what we need to do to move from fear to courage, from sadness to joy, from weeping to laughter.

John, who has just accused all those who come to him for baptism of being a brood of vipers, tells the people: “You want to make the world a better place? It’s not rocket science!” (OK, he didn’t say just like that) “In fact, it’s pretty darned easy. Share what you have … don’t be greedy … don’t be mean.”

In fact, if you fast forward 2,000 years, you hear the exact same advice from Robert Fulghum, who wrote the seminal book, All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Do you know that book?

His lessons are simple:

•Share your cookies.

•Hold hands crossing the street.

•Be kind to little old ladies.

As I said, it is not rocket science.

And yet, this morning, it is hard, isn’t is?

Because on Tuesday, we had shootings in Oregon.

On Thursday, we had a young man threaten to shoot his fellow students and blow up a school in Oklahoma – thankfully, a fellow student told the school counselor, and on Friday, that boy with a murderous rage was arrested before he could act.

Sandy Hook Elementary School evacuation. (c) Shannon Hicks, Newtown Bee.

On Friday, we had the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School – with 20 children, six teachers and school administrators, the shooter’s mother and the shooter himself killed.

Last night in Newport Beach, California, we had a man fire 50 shots at a mall – thankfully, only into the air and down into the ground. No one was injured, thanks be to God. But the man, who apparently was seeking attention, got the full attention of the police and is now in custody.

And that is just this week.

As we mourn for Newtown, Connecticut, we also mourn for the victims of other shootings we remember:  Columbine; Kentucky; Scotland; the Netherlands; Kansas; Virginia Tech; California; Germany; Minnesota; Florida; Illinois; Texas; Brazil; Alabama; Indiana; Ohio; Iowa; Richmond; Georgia; Arkansas;[1] … alas, the list goes on and on …

We mourn those whose lives were lost, those who lost loved ones; those who were injured; those who have been traumatized …

And we wonder, “What will it take to stop this madness?”

The Sufi tell a story:

Past the seeker, as he prayed, came the crippled and the beggar and the beaten. And seeing them, the holy one went down into deep prayer and cried, “Great God, how is it that a loving creator can see such things and yet do nothing about them?”

And out of the long silence, God said, “I did do something about them. I made you.”[2]

And that, my friends, is exactly what we need to hear this morning. For we are the ones who can make the madness stop. We, who were created in the very image of God, over whom God rejoiced after creating us, proclaiming that at last, creation was very good, we who have been given dominion over the earth (better understood as “stewardship” of creation), we are the ones who are called to be partners with God in caring for God’s creation.

We are the ones upon whom God depends to care for those in need, to love, to create peace and live peace …

Because the Sufis are right: God did do something about all the evil in the world. God created us.

Pakistanis children - many of whom live in fear of violence in their own lives - hold a candlelight vigil for the victims in Newtown.

So … on this Gaudete Sunday, when the prophets reiterate God’s promises to us, and assure us that God saves us, when the Apostle tells us to rejoice …. this is the day we need to make the commitment to do whatever it takes to model God’s love, to live God’s love, every moment of our lives.

We live in a country, my friends, in which there are more places to buy guns than there are Starbucks. We live in a country with 311 million people and a reported 281 million registered guns.[3] 281 million registered guns. We live in a country in which it is easier for me to buy a gun than it is for me to buy a car. Or get a driver’s license. Or buy a house.

I don’t know what kind of conversation we need to have in this country, but the time is now — it is NOW — for us to stand up and say, “Enough! We have had enough!” We cannot afford to wait until all the mourning is done – for it will never be done. We should not wait until all the memorial services and funerals are over – for they never end for the families and loved ones.

Now is the time for us to listen to John the Baptist, who tells us to share what we have, to not be greedy, to be satisfied with our honest wages, to not be mean.

Now is the time for us to listen to Robert Fulghum, who tells us to share our cookies, to hold hands while crossing the street, to be kind to little old ladies.

We are in Advent. We are waiting for the Second Coming of Christ

I can tell you: I do not believe the Risen Lord will come again as long as we refuse to live as God created us to live, in love and community. I do not believe that as long as we celebrate our individual rights to the point that our communities are ravaged by violence and death, that God is willing to come back again.

Yes, there is suffering in the world.

But God created us to do something about it!

We can rejoice – as long as we are willing to do the things that need to be done. To love – and live – kindness. To do justice. And to walk humbly with our God.

Now is the time for us to step up and do our part …

This is not someone else’s job …

It is ours.

So perhaps as we move through these last nine days of Advent, perhaps we can figure out – and begin doing – what it is that God has called us to do.

• • •

Charlotte Bacon, 6

Daniel Barden, 7

Olivia Engel, 6

Josephine Gay, 7

Ana M. Marquez-Greene, 6

Dylan Hockley, 6

Madeleine F. Hsu, 6

Catherine V. Hubbard, 6

Chase Kowalski, 7

Jesse Lewis, 6

James Mattioli, 6

Grace McDonnell, 7

Emilie Parker, 6

Jack Pinto, 6

Noah Pozner, 6

Caroline Previdi, 6

Jessica Rekos, 6

Avielle Richman, 6

Benjamin Wheeler, 6

Allison N. Wyatt, 6

Rachel DaVino, 29

Dawn Hochsprung, 47

Anne Marie Murphy, 52

Lauren Rosseau, 30

Mary Sherlach, 56

Victoria Soto, 27

Nancy Lanza, 47

Adam Lanza, 20

Now is the time … as faith-filled lovers of God … to say, “Enough. Is. Enough.” And to act to make that come true.

Those children? Those teachers? That principal?

They are counting on us.

Just as God is counting on us …

to do something.

We can start by sharing our cookies, holding hands while crossing the street, being kind to little old ladies.

It is not rocket science.

It is what we were created to do.

Amen.

Sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Advent, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Staunton, Va., 16 December 2012, in the aftermath of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Conn.


[1] http://left.wikia.com/wiki/School_Shooting_Timeline

[2] Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning (New York: Bantam Books, 1993, Kindle edition), Kindle location 1549.

[3] NBC News reports, Friday, 14 December 2012.

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For four years from 2005 to 2009, I was an Appointed Missionary of The Episcopal Church, serving in Sudan. That means that I was your missionary, representing you, to the people of Sudan, the largest nation in Africa.

I was there at the end of a long civil war, a 23-year civil war, and I lived on the border between North and South, where Northerners met Southerners, where Arabs met Blacks, where Muslims met Christians. I lived in an area that is now the northernmost point of the new country of South Sudan.

The area in which I lived, called Renk, was an area during which the 23-year civil war, the North was in control. Which meant there was no fighting going on. So people would flock to Renk from all over South Sudan, so that they could avoid a brutal civil war.

By the time I got there, the town was about 3,000 people and we had members of least 15 different tribes living in this small town. Now this is highly unusual in South Sudan, because that was a country, still to this day, where your tribe counts – more than anything else. Not the nation in which you live, not the region in which you live, but what tribe you belong to.

Because we had people from so many tribes living in South Sudan, it meant that our common language was Arabic, the language of the oppressors of the North. We didn’t speak classical Arabic; we actually spoke what is known as Sudani Creole, meaning, “Heaven forfend we should bother to conjugate a verb.” We never conjugated our verbs; that’s what Creole means.

And so the language I spoke, and the language in which I still pray, is Arabic. But every once in a while, people would challenge me on this and want to know why I was not learning the language of the predominant tribe in the area in which I lived. That tribe is more commonly known as Dinka; they are correctly known as the Jieng.

It was very important for them, they thought, that I spoke their language because then I would be proclaiming that I belonged to their tribe.

Well, one day, I was up in Khartoum, in the capital of what was then the whole country, now the capital of the northern part known as Sudan, and we were sitting on the street corner of a dusty road, and we were drinking tea, because Starbucks in Sudan – wait a minute, no, I’m up in New England – Dunkin’ Donuts in Sudan is out on a log, and the lady makes your coffee or your tea over a little open charcoal fire.

And so a bunch of us were sitting out there, and dusk was coming, so the heat was coming down, and we were drinking our tea, and these three young men, who did not know me – but they knew I was a white person, and they knew I was with the Church – challenged me. “What tribe do you belong to?” they said.

Now, I have to tell you by this time, I was tired as spit of this question. I was tired of being told I had to declare for one of the tribes, when I had friends in all 15 of the tribes in my own town. I was tired of being told I had to learn one of the tribal languages, which would exclude, necessarily, all the other people.

And so I looked at these young men and said, “I belong to the most important tribe there is. I belong to the tribe of God.

They looked at me, and I said, “There is nothing more important, nothing else I need to know in my life. I belong to the tribe of God.”

I went back to my town, and I found out that word was spreading, that people were saying, “Lauren is refusing to join any of our tribes because she belongs to the tribe of God.”

And that is what the Church in South Sudan is doing. The Church in South Sudan is breaking down those barriers, overcoming those barriers, crossing all the boundaries, so that they can proclaim that all of us are indeed of one tribe, the tribe of God.

My friends, I need to tell you, this is what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Ephesians this morning. Now if you go back and look at the letter to the Ephesians – which I highly recommend you do – take a look at what Paul is saying in there.

I’m going to tell you that lots of preachers right now are talking about how this is a way in which we’re supposed to come together in unity and stop arguing over the color of the carpet in your church.[1]

This is the time when we’re supposed to stop arguing over whether we heat the water in the bathrooms. That’s how this letter is used – very mildly, very tamely.

Anybody who uses it that way, though, is not paying any attention to Paul. Because this letter of Paul, this section of Paul’s letter? This is a cry for revolution!

This is a cry to turn over the powers and principalities which in Paul’s day were known as Rome.

In the days when Paul walked the earth, people were segregated. They were segregated by their tribes, their race, their ethnicity, their language, and most of all, by their jobs. You didn’t get to choose what job you had in those days. If you were born into a family of farmers, you were going to be a farmer. If you were born in a fisherman’s family, you were going to fish. If you were born into a tentmaker’s family, you were going to make tents. This was not an option. This is how society worked. And people gathered together around their jobs, and then they subdivided around their race, their ethnicity, and their language. That was how you got protection. They formed unions to take care of each other. If you got sick, and your family was a thousand miles away, the union took care of you. You paid your dues in, and they took care of you. Everybody was subdivided that way, and Rome used this to rule the world. They

made sure that everybody knew their little place, and by God, don’t you ever get out of place. Because any time you tried to get out of place, it was like Whack-a-Mole™ – whack! And they would knock you down.

So what is Paul talking about in his letter to the Ephesians? He’s talking about those who were aliens and strangers now being joined together. The circumcised – the Jews – and the uncircumcised – the Gentiles – are now coming together. He’s talking about tearing down all the barriers, all the boundaries; he’s talking about tearing down the walls that divide us, so that we could all unite in the one tribe that matters, the tribe of God.

He is preaching sedition.
“Let me just send a nice little letter to the people in the church. ‘Dear People of the Church of St. James in Amesbury, Massachusetts: RISE UP! TEAR DOWN YOUR WALLS! IT’S TIME FOR REVOLUTION!’” This is subversive.

That’s what Paul is doing!

He’s calling for a revolution. No wonder the Romans couldn’t wait to get rid of him. Paul was doing the same thing that Jesus did. He was changing people. He was changing society.

My friends, this is our call. In this day and age. We are hearing a clarion call to subversion, to revolution, to tear down the walls!

Now I know y’all know something about tearing down walls. Because I understand you had to tear down this wall (in the back of the church) down to its bare basics, and change out the window. You had to do something different, and you had to rebuild it.

That’s what you are being called to do in society.

So that nobody ever says, “What tribe do you belong to? What tribe do you belong to?” and separates you out. Nobody says, “So what do you do for a living,” knowing that you can only hang out with people who do the exact same thing.

The revolution we’re being called to participate in, the revolution we’re being called to lead, is to tear down all the walls so that we can all proclaim that we … belong … to the … tribe … of God. And that the tribe of God is the only tribe that counts.

It doesn’t matter what you look like, it doesn’t matter what your age is, doesn’t matter where you came from, it doesn’t matter the language you speak. Nothing matters at all; that’s all gravy. The only thing that matters is that you are a beloved child of God and belong to the tribe of God, and that’s it. Everything else? Meh! That’s just the way the genetics worked out. It’s a chemical crapshoot. It’s not important.

The revolution we are being called to lead, my friends, is a revolution that lets every person in the community, every person in the world, know that they belong. It’s a way of saying to every person, “You are a beloved child of God.” It’s a way of saying, “God loves you. And God loves you. And you. And you. And you. And you. And you. That God loves you. And you. That God loves you. And you. And you. And you.

If we all belong to the tribe of God, and we’re all beloved children of God, then our call is to live out that love in the world.

Now I want to take a moment to kind of do a sidestep in this sermon and to address something that I know is on everybody’s hearts and minds, which are the shootings out in Aurora, Colorado, that took place on Thursday night/Friday morning. Where a young man, for unknown reasons, walked into a movie theater and shot 70 people, killing 12 of them.

We don’t know why he did it. We know enough of this young man’s history to know that he is brilliant. He was a PhD candidate soaring through his program in psychology. And then something happened. And we don’t know what.

Well, I can tell you this:

If we were all out there proclaiming revolution, proclaiming the revolutionary idea that you are a beloved child of God and you belong to the tribe of God, I can tell you that incidents like this would happen a whole lot less.

Was this this young man’s cri de couer, “Pay attention to me, notice me, let know that I’m important”?

I don’t know.

But if we take the time to let each person know that they are important, that they are beloved, that they are accepted, that they belong, I am telling you there will be fewer incidents like this.

Paul is telling us to tear down the walls. If we tear down the walls, more people will belong, more people will understand that they are beloved, and fewer people will do what Mr. Holmes did in Aurora, Colorado, at 1 o’clock in the morning on Friday.

I want to step back in and tell you that for two weeks, I was at the General Convention of The Episcopal Church. It was my fifth General Convention, and I love going. I love going to big family reunions where we engage the entire world and stare at our navels at the exact same moment! I love it when we have amendments to the amendments to the substitution, call the question! I love what we do at General Convention. I walked out of this particular General Convention, where we as a church said, “By God, we’re going to include people. All means all, and all belong, and all are beloved children of God.”

I walked out of that Convention going, “Yes! Finally we’re beginning to get it.” And I walked right to the airport, smack dab into an article in The Wall Street Journal, where some guy in New York says, “I’m an Episcopalian. I didn’t like what they did. They have lost their way. Those Episcopalians are too liberal. Those Episcopalians are just following society.” And then he told a bunch of lies about what we did there. It would help if he had paid attention. But he actually did not pay any attention, and so he was misquoting us 17 ways from Sunday, and he said we did things we hand’t done, and I’m like, “Dude. You so missed that boat.”

I was ready to write him off. Until The New York Times, on Sunday, last week, decided to run an article by Ross Douthat, who is – for some unknown reason – supposed to be the spokesman in the country right now about the future of Christianity. I don’t know why – because he says we’re dead.

And he turns around and he says, “The liberal Episcopalians are doing nothing, except following society. The liberal Episcopalians have no idea what their theology is. The liberal Episcopalians” – he must have called us that like, 14 times – and I’ll tell you something. You know what my answer is?

We are not following society willy-nilly. We are dragging society forward to where God wants us to be! We are at the forefront of saying to people, “Enough! Tear down the damn walls! Everybody belongs! All really does mean all!” God does not differentiate. God doesn’t say, “Oh, you’re in, and you’re out.”

There are no “us’s” and “thems” in God’s very good creation, folks. There are no “us’s” and “thems.” God does not say, “Well, I don’t like you. But I like you.” God doesn’t run around doing that! God says, “You are my beloved.”

God created us in God’s image, an image of love – because we are not necessary to God. God is necessary to us, but we are not necessary to God, because God was before we were, and God will be after we are, so we cannot be necessary. So guess what? That means God loved us into being. That God desired us into being. So it means that we are each beloved.

And because we are Trinitarians, we are Christians, we believe in God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, we believe in community. Because nowhere in the way we read the Scriptures do God the Father and God the Son go off and do the work while God the Holy Spirit is over here, drinking a martini. If they’re drinking martinis, they’re all doing it together! If they’re working, they’re all doing it together. We’re created in that image. That means we’re created in community.

So, we are created in love and in community to live in love and in community. And The Episcopal Church is leading the way in doing this by saying, “All does mean all. There will be no more walls! You come into this church, we baptize you, you have access to everything in the church.” We’re no longer going to say, “Well, we’ll baptize you, we’ll confirm you, but we won’t marry you. We won’t let you be a priest. Or we’ll let you be a priest, but you can’t be a bishop. Uh, uh, uh, uh, we have limits.” No! Because there are no limits to God’s love.

That’s what Paul is talking about in this morning’s epistle. It’s not some namby-pamby-don’t-argue-over-the-color-of-the-carpet-in-the-church.

He’s calling us to revolution.

And I want to know:

Are you all ready?

Are you ready to be revolutionaries?

Are you ready to go into the world and to show the world a whole new way to live?

Are you ready to be bold? (A young teen cries out, “Yes!”)

You are! Good!

Are you ready to be bold and to say, “All means all”? That each of you is a beloved child of God?

I’ve got one volunteer here, do I have any more?

How many of you want to be told you don’t belong? How many of you want to stand at that door and be told, “You can’t come in”? Anybody here?

If you’re not willing to be excluded, if you are not willing to be told that you are not loved, then how dare you exclude? And how dare you tell anybody that they are not loved? Because then you have to answer, not to me, not to Susan, not to your bishop. You have to answer to God.

The only question God will ask you, when you get to those pearly gates: “Did you love?”

Tear down the walls that get in the way of God’s love.

Tear down the walls that separate us as a society.

Tear down the walls that keep us in, and them out, because there are no “us’s” and “thems.”

My friends, we’re supposed to be revolutionaries!

Are you ready?

Are you ready to be revolutionaries for God?

Amen.

Sermon preached on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11, Year B, at St. James Episcopal Church, Amesbury, Mass., 22 July 2012.


[1] Sally A. Brown, Princeton Seminary, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?tab=1&alt=1

 

 

 

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Define yourself …

Philippians 3:4b-14

Who are you?

Who are you?

How do you define yourself?

When I was a child, back in the ‘60s (and yes, I’m telling you my age now) we used to define ourselves by our ethnicity … who was Irish, who was Italian, who was French, who was English. And while we might have been nice about the terms we used to define ourselves, we certainly were not nice when it came to defining others.

By the time I was 7, I think I knew every derogatory term out there. You name an ethnicity, and I knew the name.

And I used it.

Because that’s what we did in those days.

We used names – horrible names – to define each other.

I am one-half French, one-quarter Irish and one-quarter Russian. I got called names right along with the rest of my friends.

And I thought that was normal. Because that’s the way the world was in those days …

Thankfully, the world has changed somewhat in the last 40 years, to the point where a lot of the youths I know don’t even know what those derogatory names mean, much less use them.

Which is a good thing on every level, I admit, but in the long run, it turns out those names never meant a thing anyway.

Because those names? They don’t define us. Our ethnic heritage, like so many other attributes of our lives, is nothing more than an accident of nature.

What defines us … the only thing that defines us … is that we are beloved children of God, created in God’s image, called into being by God’s love for us … for each of us.

Everything else?

Whether we’re tall or short, black or white or Latino or Asian, blue-eyed or brown-eyed? The countries we come from? The countries our ancestors came from?

They don’t mean a thing.

Because they really are but accidents of nature.

Think about it: You don’t get to choose where you are born. You don’t get to choose the color of your skin or your eyes or your hair. Where your parents came from? You have no say in that. So these things … which so often seem so important to us … really do not define us.

What defines us … what really defines us … is that we are beloved children of God.

This is what Paul is trying to teach us this morning in his letter to the Philippians.

He is writing to a community – a new community – in Philippi, a city filled with people from all over the world, with Roman citizens and slaves, with Greeks and Romans and Jews and Africans and any other nationality you can think of. In that community, you kept to your own, as it were. Sometimes, your own was defined by your faith or ethnicity. More commonly, it was defined by your trade … so stone-layers belonged to an association of stone-builders. Tent-makers hung out with tent-makers. Each form of labor had an association of some kind, and that association was your community.

But the community to which Paul was writing was breaking those boundaries. Tent-makers and stone-layers and everyone else was all mixed together in this new community of Christ followers, this community that broke all the boundaries that normally fenced the people in in those days: boundaries of race and religion and work and citizenship.

Paul is telling the Philippians that it was OK to cross those boundaries, because they didn’t define the people any more. What defined them, Paul says, is their faith in Christ Jesus, which taught them, as they had never been taught before, that each of them was a beloved child of God.

To make sure that the Philippians understand this idea of radically realigning their lives, of radically and dangerously going against the grain that Roman society demanded, Paul lays out his own credentials first. He was, he says:

• “Circumcised on the eighth day” – meaning according to the Law, meaning, he came from a Law-abiding family.

• “A member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin” – meaning that he was descended from Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, meaning that Paul’s parents were not some Johnny-come-lately Jews, but were descended from a long and faithful line of Jews.

• “A Hebrew born of Hebrews” – again, Paul was not a convert. He was born into the faith.

• “A Pharisee” – meaning that not only had he studied the Law with the very best teachers, but he could interpret the Law and then tell you how it applied to you.

• “A persecutor of the church” – remember, this is Paul, who once was Saul, who stood by and held the coats of the men who stoned Stephen, the first deacon to be martyred. This is Paul, who once was Saul, who was on that road to Damascus precisely so he could arrest these Christians and haul them back to Jerusalem to be tried, found guilty and stoned to death just like Stephen.

• “As to righteousness under the law, blameless” – This is Paul at  his arrogant best: I knew I was in right relationship with God.

Paul is explaining that he knew exactly who he was, defining himself through worldly standards (and yes, even the Law was, in Paul’s estimation, a worldly standard). And he was darned proud of who he was in the world.

But now, he says, now … all those definitions are gone. They no longer matter.

Because now, he says, he defines himself solely as belonging to Christ, he names himself a beloved child of God, saved through Christ, obedient to Christ, following Christ, every moment of every day.

Those old definitions? he asks.

They are nothing but rubbish. Garbage. Basura.

Because Paul knows, to the core of his being, that he belongs to God, and he defines his belonging through Jesus Christ.

The truth is, we are just like Paul.

Like him, we have been asked to give up our past – glorious or desperate, it matters not – asked to give up our worldly identities so that we can find, so that Christ can define us.

Everything in the past? Not important.

Because our future lies in the future, with God.

Now imagine what our world would look like if we took this definition to heart, if we really defined ourselves in this way.

How would we treat ourselves? What would it feel like to know that the single most important part of our identity is being the beloved?

Defining ourselves in God means that we accept people for who they are – beloved children of God – and then we act as though everyone – everyone – actually is a beloved child of God.

Imagine what the world would look like if we actually lived this way. If we actually dared to be as bold as Paul, to define ourselves not by the world’s standards, but by God’s standards, and then acted that way?

I can tell you what happens: The world looks at us and says, “You can’t do this. You’re a dreamer. You’re a fool.”

But what the world has to say about this is not important, because the world doesn’t get to make those decisions. God does!

And God, who created us all in God’s image, declares that all of us belong, that all of us are equal, that all of us are beloved.

So let’s do this:

Let’s be radical go out into the world today – and every day after today – and let’s live as the people we truly are: God’s.

And let’s treat everyone else as the people they truly are: God’s.

This is the greatest gift we can give to the world: To stop defining ourselves by accidents of nature and start defining ourselves by the only thing that matters:

We are beloved children of God.

Full stop.

Amen.

Sermon preached on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bailey’s Crossroads, Va., Proper 22, Year A, 2 October 2011.

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Gospel-worthy

Philippians 1:21-30

                   The House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church is meeting in Quito, Ecuador, this week. One hundred and sixteen bishops from the 109 dioceses spread out over 16 nations have gathered to pray, to learn … and to think …

One thing they were asked to think about came from Don Compier, a liberation theologian who recounted to the bishops a recent conversation he had had.

Compier told them that “he was recently asked by someone in another denomination: ‘If you care about the poor, why are you an Episcopalian? Aren’t you just interested in liturgy?’ Compier reminded the bishops that “our tradition of witness to the concerns for the poor is not well known, even by us.”[1]

What Compier was asking the bishops to think about was, in essence, the same thing St. Paul asks, in a variety of ways, throughout his letters: How then shall we live?

Shall we live as people who are in love with liturgy?

Or shall we live our lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel, as Paul exhorts us this morning?

And what, pray tell, does that even mean, to live our lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel?

For Paul (and implicitly, for the person who asked Compier that question), Gospel-worthy lives begin and end in community.

Gospel-worthy lives are never about us … They are never about getting ahead or getting more, never about adopting the attitude of “I’ve-got-mine-and-I-don’t-care-if-you-get-yours,” never about leaving others behind.

Gospel-worthy lives are about love.

Gospel-worthy lives are love.

Paul makes this clear in what is known as his “love letter to his friends in the church at Philippi.”[2] Everything he writes them is about how we are to live in love and in community because this is what God desires for us.

As Walter Brueggemann, one of the most respected theologians of our times, preached not long ago:

Paul says to his beloved church, imagine your life caught up in the great divine drama in order that you may not imagine your life as a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing, in order that you may not imagine your life as an endless rat race that no one can win, in order that you will not imagine your life as an endless series of accidents that amount to very little. Christians (he says) are people who imagine and receive their lives differently, bracketed and ordered by God’s goodness and God’s resolve for us.[3]

 

Our lives will have meaning, our lives will fulfill God’s desires for us, if we bracket and order our lives in God’s goodness, in God’s resolve, if we live focused not on ourselves but on God’s beloved community.

                  That’s what Paul is talking about when he says “living is Christ,” that living is “fruitful labor” for him, that it is “more necessary for you.”

Paul is talking about community, which can only be lived in love.

Even the word Paul uses to instruct his beloved friends in Philippi underscores this. The Greek word for “live your life” is politeusthe – which comes from the Greek word for “city” – polis – which according to one commentator “has the sense of ‘live as a free citizen,’ [or] ‘conduct your public life.’”[4]

So Paul is crystal clear that our lives are never to be about “me-me-me, mine-mine-mine.” Not only are they are always to be focused on others, but, Paul insists, we are to bring our focus as a community.

Because we are the Body of Christ, Paul teaches, we are to act as the Body of Christ.

If all of us were to focus our lives and our love together, there wouldn’t be 52 million Americans living in poverty right now. There wouldn’t be 48 million Americans living right now without health insurance.

If we focused our lives and love together, there wouldn’t be 14 million unemployed people in our own country, there wouldn’t be millions of our children going to school hungry every morning, there wouldn’t be a wealth disparity in this country and in this world that more closely models medieval times than modern times.

If we brought our Gospel-worthy lives to bear on the problems of the world, do you really think there would be 650,000 Somalis about to starve to death in the Horn of Africa right now, because no one will give them food?

Would there really be children who die of easily cured diseases – diseases we can cure for less than one dollar per child – because no one will give them medicine?

If we lived Gospel-worthy lives – and we can easily choose to do so – each person, each beloved child of God in this world – would have enough – not too much, not an over-abundance of things, but enough ­– enough food and water, enough shelter, enough education, enough money to not just survive but thrive.

Paul “is speaking (to us) about how a community whose common life is founded and sustained by the crucified and risen Christ should live together.” [5] And, he’s telling us, this is our choice to make.

Now, I need to warn you:

Being Gospel-worthy – living Gospel-worthy lives – is dangerous. It gets us in trouble. It upsets the status quo. And sometimes, when we focus our lives in this way … sometimes … we end up in jail … like Paul. Sometimes, we end up dying … like Jesus and Paul.

You don’t think Paul was hauled off to prison – which is where he was when he wrote this love letter to the Philippians – just because he didn’t pay his taxes, do you?

As Paul himself would say, Me genito! By no means!

Paul ended up in jail – Paul ended up being executed – because he upset the Roman apple cart!

Because he kept getting in the face of those in power, he kept threatening those in power, with the Gospel … with Jesus’ instructions to care for those in need, to feed the hungry, to cure the sick and touch the leper and eat with the tax collectors and worship with the prostitutes and the destitute … to give hope to the hopeless and power to the powerless, to include the excluded, to love the unloved.

And that’s just not where the world – or, I should say, where the powers-that-be in the world – want us to go.

The powers-that-be in no way want us to stand up and say, No more. Nada mas. Bas. Basta.

In no way do the powers-that-be want us – members of the Body of Christ – to upset their apply carts.

But we are the Body of Christ, commanded by none other than Christ, to love God and love our neighbor – to live in love and community every moment of our lives, to make choices – every moment of our lives – that are for the common good, not for our own good only.

• • •

This past summer, I was at Camp McDowell, the Diocese of Alabama’s camp and retreat center, helping to lead a week-long summer camp program for 125 seventh- and eight-graders. Our program was focused on how to live together as the Body of Christ.

We called it, OMG, Y’all! (That stands for … wait for it … wait for it …) On a Mission From God, Y’all. (Not what you thought, eh?)

One part of the camp program was a game called “Survival,” in which we asked each small group of about 10 campers to become a “nation,” to which we then gave red and green beads.

Each red bead, we told the campers, represented 1,000 people.

Each green bead, we said, represented enough food for 1,000 people.

No group – no nation­ ­– started off with an equal amount of beads.

Some nations had lots of red beads – lots of people – and very few green beads – very little food.

Other nations had enough food to feed their people several times over.

The goal of the game, we said, was for each nation to end up with an equal number of red and green beads – with enough food to care for all their people.

Now, what normally happens in this game is that the nations swap food and people with each other – all the while dealing with disasters or blessings, with locusts or emigration, with tornadoes or gentle rainfall, with drought or bumper crops, with whatever disaster or blessing we decided to drop on them, whenever we decided to do so. What normally happens is that at the end, each nation has enough food to feed its people, but some nations are huge, and others are small.

That’s what normally happens.

Not at Camp McDowell, of course.

There, the kids decided first that they would take care of each other. One group,  every time it found itself with a surplus of food,  started going to other groups and simply giving their extra food away for free, asking nothing in return. Others entered covenants: You take care of us, we’ll take care of you. Still others formed coalitions, sharing food and people equally.

And then, in the end, in a completely unexpected turn of events (which I have never seen before), the groups decided they no longer wanted to experience famine or overcrowding. So they joined together.

All 12 groups.

Into one nation.

That way, they reasoned, everyone would have enough to eat. No one would go hungry ever again.

May I remind you that these children were in seventh and eighth grade? That they ranged in age from 11 to 14?

These children understood what it means to live Gospel-worthy lives.

And then they lived them.

Let me tell you: Those children in Alabama? They knew how to answer Paul’s great question of “How then shall we live?” Yes, it was just a game in a week filled with games. But they still did it. For them, it was a no-brainer! (Actually, I believe what they said to me was, “Duh!”)

And if those children can do it, can’t we as well? If they can see this solution as a “Duh!” can’t we do the same? After all, we are the adults here!

The children already know this, and they teach us about our call in life. Their answer Paul’s question:

We are called … as members of the Body of Christ … to live Gospel-worthy lives.

We are called to be Gospel-worthy.

Gospel-worthy.

Amen.

Sermon preached on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20, Year A, 18 September 2011, at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Blue Grass, Va.



[1] Quoted in “Theology of Liberation” on the blog of The Rt. Rev. Michael Hanley, Bishop of Oregon, http://www.bishop.episcopaldioceseoregon.org/, 15 September 2011. Compier is a professor at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary,A Love Letter…concerning a Work in Progress,” First Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Mich., 6 December 2009, http://www.fpcbirmingham.org/worship/sermons/a-love-letter/, emphasis added.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Susan Eastman, Assistant Professor of the Practice of the Bible and Christian Formation,

Duke Divinity School, Durham, N.C., “Reciprocating Glory,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx.

[5] Stephen E. Fowl. Philippians (Two Horizons New Testament Commentary), 79, Kindle Edition.

 

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Who said anything about ‘gentle’?

I woke up this morning with Advent on my mind.

I was replaying in my head messages from friends and various Advent resources calling this moment in our lives a time of “gentle waiting.”

“Gentle waiting!” I thought. “Why are we engaged in gentle waiting?!?”

I’m fear that we are trying to tame Advent when we make this call. And I don’t think Jesus wants us to do that.

We need to give them clean water.

I mean, what’s gentle about the Gospel lessons we hear in this season? Jesus tells us to keep awake, therefore, for we do not know on what day our Lord is coming. (Do we really imagine that the owner of the house was waiting gently for the thief to come in the night?)

Paul says now is the time for us to awake from sleep, for salvation is nearer to us than before, and commends us to put on the armor of light. (Who puts on armor and then sits gently?)

John the Baptist bellows, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (How can we prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight if we aren’t doing something?)

Nowhere in those statements do I hear anything about gentleness.

Advent’s  a wakeup call, all right. But it’s an urgent one. It’s a rough shaking of the shoulder to get us out of bed to do something. This is not your mother leaning over you and gently saying, “Wake up, my love ….” This is Jesus calling, and he’s grabbing you and shaking you and throwing back the sheets and yelling, “GET UP!!!! We have things to do!”

And looking at the world around us, we know that is true. We DO have things to do.

There’s the DREAM Act to be passed. And Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to be repealed. Unemployment benefits need to be extended.

The people in Sudan need our prayers and our advocacy, to prevent yet another war.

The people in Haiti need our help to fight cholera and build a nation devastated by the earthquake.

Those who are sick need our help.

There are hungry people everywhere whom we need to feed, thirsty people who need clean water from us, ailing people who need our medicine and our care. There are children who need our love. The blind desire to see, the deaf want to hear, the mute yearn to sing with joy.

None of these things will be accomplished by gently waiting for someone else to step up. We are the ones who are to make the paths straight.

Advent for me is a time for action. It’s a time for us to look at the world around us and ask, “Is this really what we want to give to Jesus as a birthday gift? A world where so many have so little and we allow that?”

I woke up this morning with Advent on my mind, all right.

The call I heard was crystal clear: “Get cracking! Do the work you’ve been given to do – now! There’s no time to wait for someone else to do the work. Hurry! It’s Advent! Do something!”

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